Cheney was too slow in accepting the blame


Greg Bean

I was 6 years old when I shot my grandfather in the back with an arrow. Ours was a hunting culture, and I’d been along on hunting trips since I was old enough to walk. This, however, was the first time I’d been in the field with anything more deadly than a slingshot.

And it didn’t turn out exactly the way I’d planned. My grandfather had taken me to practice with my new bow and arrows and had walked down field to retrieve a few arrows I’d already shot. Instead of waiting until he was safely back behind the line, I became impatient and took a shot at a hay bale that was about 30 feet to his left. Then, the wind caught the light arrow and …

“It was an accident,” he said a few minutes later as grandma dabbed the minor wound with alcohol and cotton balls. “But I hope it teaches you an important lesson. Never shoot until you’re absolutely certain your target is the only thing in the line of fire. Out here, you think safety first, or you stay home and paint watercolors.”

That lesson served me well as I grew up and went into the field with more dangerous weapons and more challenging game. And thankfully, that was the only hunting accident I ever witnessed (not counting the time my father lost two fingers, but that wasn’t strictly a hunting accident and is a story for another time).

When I talk to most people in this part of the country, it’s almost impossible to explain the hunting culture in a town like Casper, Wyo., where Dick Cheney and I both grew up.

Out there, almost every family hunts, and kids start young. The harvest of game fills freezers for the winter, and there are lots of families who live on nothing but venison and macaroni for most of the year. Where we grew up, hunting was so important that schools were dismissed on the first day of deer season, and there were a good many Sunday dinners when the fare would have been poor if some cuts of elk or pronghorn hadn’t turned up in the stew.

Out there, hunting isn’t a macho thing. It isn’t even a sport in the real sense. It’s a simple, accepted fact of life. It’s feeding your family. Store-bought food is expensive. Wild game is plentiful and almost free. Weapons are the tools with which that harvest is reaped, and they are well respected. Accidents are very, very rare.

As I grew older and moved away from Wyoming, I no longer needed to hunt, no longer needed the meat those hunts provided. But like many who grew up in that culture and moved away, there were aspects of it that I missed. I missed the camaraderie of the hunt, the jokes around the campfire. I missed being outdoors on a crisp day. I missed testing my skills. I missed shooting.

So I evolved. I quit hunting big game, but I began participating in shooting competitions — only with authentic muzzle loaders, however, because it’s more of a challenge. I still camp and go fishing, but instead of baiting my hook with worms (and catching lots of fish), I fish with artificial flies because of the greater degree of difficulty. I almost always release the fish back into the stream after landing them. It is enough.

Dick Cheney followed a similar path. He’s not a big game hunter anymore. But my stepfather assures me he’s a better fly fisherman than I am, and I know he’s a better wing-shot. It’s one thing to hunt slow geese with a huge 10-gauge shotgun. It’s another thing entirely to hunt small, fast-flying quail with a 28-gauge shotgun that shoots pellets the size of a pinhead. That takes a level of expertise that most bird hunters simply never achieve.

On a quail hunt, the hunters move in a line through the brush, hoping to jump a covey of birds. Unlike many game birds, however, quail tend to sit tight until the hunters are almost on top of them. Then they explode like the sparks of a Roman candle, each bird moving low and rapidly in a different direction. Hunters must shoulder and fire very quickly (thus the importance of knowing exactly where your buddies are), and many times they come up empty-handed, especially if they’re using a weapon like a 28-gauge shotgun. But at this level, it isn’t about bagging game anyway. It’s about camaraderie, being outdoors, the challenge of mastering a weapon in difficult conditions. It’s about retaining a part of the culture you were raised in, of honoring our past.

Even with such challenging hunting conditions, accidents are rare. In 2004, there were 29 reported hunting accidents in Texas among more than 1 million licensed hunters. When Dick Cheney shot attorney Harry Whittington, it was likely the first hunting accident reported in Texas this year. And because I think I understand how it happened, I believe it was an accident.

But what still bothers me isn’t that the national press wasn’t informed immediately, or that Cheney was doing something most Easterners consider as politically incorrect as owning a gun and hunting. What bothers me is that he didn’t publicly own up to his responsibility for the better part of a week. It bothers me that instead of Dick Cheney standing right up and saying he made a bone-headed blunder — end of story — some of his people continue trying to shift the blame and suggest Whittington was at fault because he failed to announce his presence after dropping out of the line momentarily to pick up a downed bird.

When you hunt, and you shoot your hunting buddy, it might be an accident, but it is ALWAYS YOUR FAULT, and there’s no getting around it. Dick Cheney finally admitted that when he said last Wednesday night, “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

Better late than never, I suppose.

Now, a part of the controversy is whether Cheney was drinking before the accident. Nobody else admits to seeing him drinking, but Cheney says he had a beer with lunch several hours before the shooting.

Where I come from, you never drink before you handle firearms, and Dick Cheney knows that, too. If it ultimately turns out he was impaired, then whatever small sympathy I feel for him is history, and all bets are off.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers.